BourbonAndVinyl’s Best of 2018: Best New LPs & Best Box Set/Archival Releases

IMG_1192

I don’t know about all of you out there, but for us down here at B&V, 2018 was one tough year. The world has gone completely mad. At least we have bourbon and rock n’ roll to get us through. I saw on the news the other night that some college had done a study and concluded that the most lonely times in a person’s life were late 20s, mid 50s and late 80s. Thankfully I’m through the first and drink enough that the latter probably won’t be a problem. As for the middle one, I’m lucky that my pal Doug lives only a few miles from here and we met for beers last night. No matter how crazy things get out there, it’s nice to have someone other than the Rock Chick to grab a beer with. Everyone needs a drinking friend to help you blow off steam. We drink a few beers and talk a little treason.

2018 was a tough year in rock and roll. We lost the Queen this year, Aretha Franklin. While that was tragic it wasn’t as bad as last year when we were losing rock stars at an alarming rate. Elton John has announced he’s retiring from the road, which I consider a bummer. I saw Elton when I was in high school, against my will, only to discover he was amazing. Paul Simon seems to be retiring, which is too bad because his last few albums have been some of the most inventive of his career. Both Jack White and Lenny Kravitz delivered highly anticipated new albums that were both duds. #Disappointed. Hell, even Fleetwood Mac broke up with Lindsey Buckingham. I’m delighted to see that Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers and Neil Finn of Crowded House found employment with the Mac (everyone needs a steady job), but it just doesn’t feel the same without Lindsey.

It was a pretty good year for concerts here at B&V. I was able to catch Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, Robert Plant, and Billy Idol in the friendly confines of local theaters. I had to travel to catch Depeche Mode for the second time on the Spirit tour and it was certainly worth braving the drive through Oklahoma to get there. I felt like I was behind enemy lines… If the last few years have taught me anything, and I’ll say it again, buy the ticket – see the show. I’m looking forward to seeing Ozzy and Metallica in the coming year. If those shows are any indication, it’s going to be hard rock year in 2019. I’m also looking forward to seeing Salina’s Sunset Sinners, but that’s more of a regional thing right now.

I would be remiss in not mentioning that the biggest movie of the year was the story of Freddie Mercury and Queen, ‘Bohemian Rhaposdy.’ There were a number of great documentaries about musicians this year – ‘Elvis Presley – The Searcher’ and ‘Jeff Beck, Still On The Run,’ were both exceptional. I do urge any true Springsteen fan to pull up ‘Springsteen On Broadway’ on Netflix. For comedy fans, I urge you to see both documentaries about Robin Williams and Garry Shandling that were done this year. If I can’t go to a concert or a comedy show, at least I can watch it on TV.

I glanced back at my “best of” for last year, 2017. There just seemed to be a whole lot more music released last year. There were so many bands I had hoped would release a new album this year that opted out. The Rolling Stones, Pearl Jam, and Bruce Springsteen were all on my radar for new music this year… alas, nothing. This year we had to look a little harder for good music. I have compiled, below, what I think are the best new albums of 2018. As I was compiling this list, I realized there were a lot of great vault releases – stuff that was recorded years ago and never released. Those usually come in the form of box sets. There were also some re-releases that were just great. So, breaking with tradition, I also compiled a list of the best of the reissues/vault releases. I urge you to check all of this great music out. Both lists are in alphabetical order… we’re not into the competition thing here. On the archival stuff, I’m sure I’ll get some arguments…

B&V Best Albums of 2018

  1. David Byrne, American Utopia – I was totally surprised by this album. It’s his most Talking Heads-ish work to date. “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets” is my favorite track. I hear he’s releasing a live EP from his critically lauded tour in support of this album. This is a great, late career release that we just love at B&V.
  2. Billy Gibbons, The Big Bad Blues – It appears Billy has dissolved ZZ Top for good but he’s back in Texas blues-boogie form on this great, dirty blues album. While you’ll find great blues covers of “Standing Around Crying” and “Rolling and Tumbling” there are also great originals like “Missin’ Yo Kissin'” and “My Baby She Rocks.” Classic and new all at the same time.
  3. Greta Van Fleet, Anthem Of the Peaceful Army – Admittedly, I liked the “double-EP” From the Fires a little better, but these kids are still forming. I hear a lot of Zeppelin and even some Rush here (thanks for pointing that out BG) but these guys will find their own voice. It’s just encouraging to hear kids rawk out.
  4. The Longshot, Love Is For Losers – Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong’s latest side project is pure punk rock fun. He throws in a crazy cover of Ozzy’s “Goodbye to Romance” just for good measure. He’s clearly having a lot of fun.
  5. Dave Matthews Band, Come Tomorrow – DMB’s first album since ousting violinist Boyd Tinsley is an atmospheric, catchy brew. I missed the violin, but all the classic pieces are here on a great DMB record.
  6. Paul McCartney, Egypt Station – I’m not into the whole ranking but this is hands-down, the best album of the year. The former Beatle returned in fine form. Rockers like “Come On To Me” to gorgeous, lush ballads like “I Don’t Know,” Macca proves he can do it all and do so with a magic touch. Classic album.
  7. Van Morrison, The Prophet Speaks – Van reunites with his jazzy pals Joey DeFrancesco’s quartet and produce a laid back, groovy record. I hope Van keeps up this pace of an album every six months.
  8. Paul Simon, In The Blue Light – I didn’t write a review of this record on B&V but I really do like this one. It’s Simon going back into his catalog and pulling out rarities and songs that just didn’t feel right… “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor” is great here. This is a wonderful trip through the back catalog to places you might not have been.
  9. Bruce Springsteen, Springsteen On Broadway – An intimate evening with Springsteen where he brings his autobiography to life on stage. The spoken word passages are probably better than the actual acoustic, stripped down performances. Probably for Springsteen fanatics only but worth a listen or a view on Netflix.
  10. Slash, Living The Dream – Finally some hard rawk on this list!! Slash reunites with Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators for a hard rock gem. Slash’s playing is at once powerful and melodic.
  11. The Smashing Pumpkins, Shiny and Oh So Bright – The return of Jimmy Chamberlin and James Iha was not the guitar tour de force I was expecting but this is a great, albeit brief album.

B&V The Best of the Vault/Archival Releases & Box Sets

  1. The Beatles, The Beatles (Super Deluxe) – This is the ultimate release of the Beatles famous 1968 album, dubbed The White Album. The original album gets a stereo remastering by Giles Martin. You find the entire Esher Demo sessions and a lot of great outtakes. A must have for Beatles fans.
  2. Chris Cornell, Chris Cornell (Deluxe Edition) – I tried to put together a playlist encapsulating Cornell’s varied career on Spotify, but I never scratched the surface based on this box set. This covers everything from Soundgarden to solo work to Audioslave and beyond. RIP Chris, we still miss you.
  3. Bob Dylan, More Blood, More Tracks – The complete sessions for Dylan’s masterpiece, Blood On the Tracks, from both New York and Minnesota. It’s big so my review is still being formulated, but it’s moving stuff.
  4. Jimi Hendrix, Electric Ladyland 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition – With three CDs and a blu-ray, this is a pretty complete look at Hendrix’s double-lp. The Hollywood Bowl concert is a bit rough from a sound perspective but the content is mind blowing.
  5. Jimi Hendrix, Both Sides of the Sky – This one I almost put on the “best of” list of new LPs. This is the third in a series of vault releases from Hendrix that unearth alternative versions, outtakes and never heard before songs.
  6. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, An American Treasure – This box of alternate takes, unreleased stuff and live cuts proves the title to be true. Petty really was an American treasure.
  7. Bruce Springsteen, Live At the Roxy 1978 – Springsteen continues to release classic concerts from the archive. This is another one from the 1978 Darkness tour and it may be the best release yet. I’m still hoping for a better release from The Rising tour. If you’re not checking out these archives, you’re missing out!
  8. Pete Townshend, Who Came First – The charming, homespun first solo album from Townshend gets the deluxe reissue treatment. I loved this album, always have. I love that he covers the Ronnie Lane tune, “Evolution (Stone)” live.
  9. Neil Young, Roxy: Tonight’s The Night Live – Neil on stage, joyfully performing his darkest album. This was a real treat. Young’s archive rivals Springsteen’s. He also came out with a compilation of live, acoustic releases from a 1976 tour, Songs For Judy that I found pretty compelling.

I’m sure some will argue I should have added the John Lennon box to this list, but I found it overwhelming. And I’m sure there are some of you who will argue with my best albums list. If you have suggestions, please add them in the comments.

I do think 2019 is going to be a great year for rock n’ roll… with Springsteen, the Stones, Pearl jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers all rumored to be releasing albums, it should be a great year…but that’s what I said last year.

Happy Holidays and toast to all of you! Cheers!

Advertisements

Movie: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ – The Story of Freddy Mercury and Queen

image1

*Image from a drawing I bought at an art fair that hangs in my office, artist’s name illegible

I think it was Lou Reed, on a song from his landmark late-80s album New York, who sang about the “duality of nature, human nature, godly nature splits the soul.” I’m not sure I knew what he was talking about when I was listening to that song in my car on cassette, driving around Northwest Arkansas. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to piece that together a little better. For example, on a superficial level, I can tell you that autumn is my favorite time year (“autumn’s sweet, we call it fall” as the Chili Peppers sang). At the same time I can tell you that I hate this time of year. The faceless corporation I work for does most of it’s business in December so autumn and early winter are always insanely busy. My travel goes up, my time to listen to rock and roll goes down. The only thing that throws the balance of autumn to the positive is football and well, it is bourbon season.

Being so busy this time of year has prevented me from my favorite past time – holing up in the B&V labs and scribbling about the music that shaped my life. I’m long overdue for a post, but enough about me. I got home from one of my interminable business trips this Friday, dropped my suitcases in an exhausted heap and learned that the Rock Chick had bought us tickets to see the new bio-pic about Freddy Mercury and Queen, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.” This was quite a delightful surprise. She was not keen to go see this movie. Earlier in the week, there had been an intense negotiation around which flicks we would be seeing in the near term. In exchange for her going to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ I fear I may have committed to go to ‘A Star Is Born.’ Say what you want about Lady Gaga, (and while I think she’s talented, I’m not a fan…not my style), Kris Kristofferson and Streisand own that movie for me… Little known fact, Streisand originally asked Elvis to play the part of the druggy, burned-out rock star… He (or more likely, the Colonel) turned her down. They speculate that taking the role could have saved his life. He’d have had to sober up and get in shape. At least Baabs tried. What might have been…?

Last night, I finally got to do something other than work and we went to see ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ The movie stars Rami Malek as Freddy Mercury, Ben Hardy as Roger Taylor, Joseph Mazzello as John Deacon (or Deacon John as we knew him back in the day), and finally Gwilym Lee as Brian May. Gwilym? This kid’s parents must have been hippies or had a strange sense of humor. Not enough can be said about the performance of Lucy Boynton as Mary Austin, Freddy’s long time friend and briefly, his wife. I will be the first to admit, this movie is flawed. The timeline as to which songs or which albums were released was way off. Probably only an OCD rock fan with a blog would notice but I kept muttering about it to the Rock Chick. I think Freddy was probably a tortured soul and struggled with his own “duality of nature” if you will, and I think Rami Malek captures that well. However, I think there was a lot of joy in Freddy’s life and I don’t think they captured enough of that. Freddy always looked like he was having a great time to me. All of that aside, as a rock fan, I really liked this movie. But then, I really love Queen.

Queen were already international rock stars when my own rock and roll awakening took place in 7th or 8th grade. My parents weren’t musical, they never played the radio, but somehow there were just certain songs or groups that seemed to pierce my consciousness. I can distinctly remember going to the pool in the summer, which was literally my only exposure to pop music when I was a kid (except those rare times I went into my brother’s room, he was far more advanced musically than I was), and being aware of hearing “Rhiannon” by Fleetwood Mac and “Killer Queen” by, of course, Queen. I was literally aware of Queen before I was aware of rock and roll.

My first vinyl Queen purchase was 1977’s News Of The World. It was one of the first rock albums I’d purchased. You couldn’t get away from the lead singles “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions.” The “Champions” part was Freddy’s snarky reply to the punks, and probably the best reply by a “classic” rock band other than “Who Are  You?” Who would have dreamed a band fronted by a gay man would pen a song that would be played in every arena and stadium at every macho sporting event for the rest of recorded time. I simply loved that album. It had a little bit of everything. People forget that Queen started as a hard rock band with prog rock influences. While they rocked, they could certainly roll too. Freddy, very early on, cited Robert Plant as a singing idol. Metallica has covered some of their early stuff… News Of the World had plenty of hard rock (“It’s Late” is my perennial favorite), but it also had piano ballads (“My Melancholy Blues”), disco (“Get Down Make Love”) and epic arena rock (“Spread Your Wings”).

After News, I was on the bandwagon. Queen was on top of the world at that time. 1978’s Jazz which was described in Rolling Stone magazine as “fascist,” and had nothing to do with the musical genre it’s named after. It was all rock and roll. That was followed by their oft overlooked live album, Live Killers that always seemed to be playing at keg parties I went to. It was always that album and Rush’s 2112 that somebody put on. Queen finally reached their second career zenith (the first being, of course, their masterpiece, A Night At the Opera) with 1980’s The Game. The lead single was “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and it still knocks me out. I was too young to realize that Freddy was doing Elvis.

The Game always conjures a bit of a bittersweet reaction in me. Queen came to Kansas City on that tour. My friend Matthew and his hot girlfriend Debbie tried to talk me into going to the show. By then, I was a “Death Before Disco” guy and didn’t like “Another One Bites the Dust.” I hate to admit it, but I think there was more to it than that. For The Game Freddy had cut his hair short, grown a mustache and was dressed like a butch biker. All the time we’d been listening to Queen, we’d all say, “he’s not gay, he’s just English, they’re more flamboyant,” with all apologies to every Englishmen out there. I fear I was part of the backlash against Queen and I didn’t go the show. I wish I’d seen these guys, I blew it. My friend Matthew sadly passed out as they came on stage and only regained consciousness when they were saying goodnight. I think we’ve all had nights like that…mine was Neil Young and Crazy Horse… what happened?

It was then that Queen began to “lose” America. Their next album, Hot Space was their worst… I shudder when I think about the lead single, “Body Language.” Not even the presence of David Bowie and “Under Pressure” could save that record. There was more to it – I don’t know if it was gay backlash. I know at the time of The Game I was an adolescent kid who didn’t know much about the world. I was still forming. An in your face gay Freddy was more than we could handle. I’m ashamed of that now. Now I’d say it doesn’t matter who you’re fucking, what matters is the music… Despite all that, we all still made sure we were home when Queen were on Saturday Night Live. I can still remember being thrilled to see them perform “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Under Pressure.” That was back when SNL was “appointment” television. You’d make sure to get home to see the skits, and more importantly for me, the bands.

While it wasn’t until much later that I picked up 1984’s The Works, I certainly got back on the bandwagon for their album, A Kind of Magic, which was basically the soundtrack to one of my all time favorite movies, ‘Highlander.’ I can remember Matthew saying at the time, “Brian May needs to take control of this band,” which probably shows our lack of understanding as to how Queen operated. Queen went on to have a very strong late career. The highlight of which, and the climactic moment in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ was their performance at Live Aid. I remember watching them on TV and being blown away. Forget all the reunions – Zeppelin, CSNY, Mick and Tina Turner, Black Sabbath – Queen stole the show. The final scene in the movie, which is a spot-on recreation of Queen’s Live Aid set (slightly edited) put tears in my eyes. When I got home from the theater I had to pull up the YouTube video and marveled at how kick ass Queen was that day. Mercury was warned by doctors he could lose his voice if he sang that day, and he still went on. The fans at Wembley went certifiably nuts… As I watched the YouTube footage, again, tears welled for a friend lost too early, Freddy Mercury.

Fans of rock and roll, fans of Queen, fans of the human experience, the “duality of nature, human nature…”, all of you should go and see this movie. It’s not a perfect biography but it was a fun and enjoyable movie. The thing that you’ll enjoy the most is the power and majesty of the rock and roll Queen and Freddy made. It’s certainly better than that mess Oliver Stone made about the Doors. After you’ve seen it, run home and drop Sheer Heart Attack on the turntable, pour something dark and murky and marvel… Long Live the Queen!

 

Muddy Waters: 1977 – 1981, The Late Career, Johnny Winters’ Produced Records

0000349230

“Well the blues had a baby and they named the baby ‘Rock and Roll'” – Muddy Waters, “The Blues Had a Baby”

I was a fan of the blues before I even knew what the blues were. I can still remember in the movie The Jerk, when Steve Martin’s character, Navin Johnson, is asked by his brother if he’d like to come out on the porch and sing the blues… Martin deadpans, “No, there’s just something about that music that depresses me.” That was my only impression of the blues. I grew up in the suburbs of a small, midwestern, American town and the blues were not something you heard on the radio. My parents weren’t exactly musical people and that didn’t help. So I really didn’t know anything about the blues except this vague impression that it was “downer” music. The only blues song I’d probably ever heard at that point was the amazing B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” and that’s a pretty sad song. I used to like to put that on mix tapes when I broke up with someone, but those records are sealed.

However, without even knowing it, I was already a fan of the blues. Every band I liked played blues-based music or as it was known, “blues rock.” My first love, the Rolling Stones, were basically a blues cover band for the first five years of their career and still play the blues today (LP Review: The Rolling Stones, The Superb “Blue And Lonesome” – They Come Full Circle). Led Zeppelin’s music was steeped in the blues so much they were sued for copyright infringement. Jimi Hendrix, Cream, the Faces, Foghat, AC/DC, Humble Pie, the list goes on and on, were all either blues rock or at the very least performing blues covers. People think of the young Bob Dylan as a folkie, but I hear as much Robert Johnson in his early music as Woody Guthrie… I had no idea “I Just Wanna Make Love To You” was a blues cover… I thought it was just a Foghat song. Oh, the ignorance of youth… It wasn’t until I purchased, and I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, the Blues Brother’s live album, Briefcase Full of Blues that I realized the blues were more than just sad, acoustic based songs. The blues were powerful and joyful and simply amazing all at the same time. God bless John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. A lot of criticism was leveled at the Blues Brothers, but that was an amazing band – Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn and an amazing horn section… Sure Belushi was no Sam Cooke on vocals, but he was committed. I love it when he says, “I suggest you buy all the blues albums you can,” in between songs. Sage advice, indeed.

It’s easy I suppose, especially when you’re young, to hear a band and not realize they were influenced heavily by other artists, the artists that came before them. It’s easy to hear Van Morrison’s band Them doing their version of “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” (perhaps the definitive rock version of that song) and not realize how heavily influenced he was by Muddy Waters’ version. As a young kid I heard Cream’s version of “Rollin’ and Tumbling'” and thought it was their song. After hearing the Blues Brothers I began to explore the roots of all this rock and roll music I was listening to, and started reading liner notes and writing credits, and realized there was a world of blues artists I hadn’t realized existed. Searching and seeking out the blues was really the root of my life long obsession with musical spelunking.

There were names that my Rock Star heroes were dropping in interviews, the names of their heroes. There were the Three Kings – B.B., Freddie, and Albert. Albert Collins was another guy I heard a lot about. Then I discovered the legend of Robert Johnson, which is a whole other blog post. All of these men were Titans of the Blues. But there were others – names that conjured awe and fear all at the same time… Who was this Howlin Wolf person? That’s a pretty scary moniker… and then I heard that otherworldly voice. But the one name that always caught my ear, that made me feel we were talking about someone special, was Muddy… Muddy Waters. That name conjures up the very Delta where the blues sprang from. It was as if this Muddy Waters was the personification of the blues. His name was spoken of in such reverential tones you just knew he was important. I assumed, wrongly, that this was a person who had lived and sang the blues and died decades before I was born, like Robert Johnson. I didn’t even realize that Muddy was still alive when I was in high school while all of this musical spelunking was going on. Muddy didn’t pass until 1983. I didn’t even know it was Muddy’s version of “Mannish Boy” that was used so effectively in the movie Risky Business. “All I’m saying is, walk like a man…”

McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters was born in the Missisippi Delta. By the time he was in his teens he was playing guitar, harmonica and singing with the authority of a man much older. He was actually recorded by Alan Lomax on his famous recordings for the Library of Congress. Eventually, like the music of the blues itself, Muddy migrated north to Chicago. Muddy was one of the bedrock foundations of what was known as “Chicago Blues.” He played mostly acoustic blues on record, but in the clubs at night he had a full-on electric band. With Muddy and the legendary Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Otis Spann on piano and Little Walter on harmonica (or as it’s known in blues, the harp) Muddy’s band was probably the greatest blues outfit ever assembled. Muddy was the King of Chicago blues from the late 40’s through the mid-50s. I can close my eyes and see Paul Butterfield and Michael Bloomfield hanging out in southside Chicago clubs hoping to get up and jam with Muddy…

While his fortunes may have waned by the dawn of the 60s, Muddy had toured England and in doing so turned-on a generation of white, English blues musicians from Steve Winwood and Van Morrison to Mick Jagger and Alexis Koerner to his brand of blues. His seminal live album, 1960s At Newport spurred on a whole new wave of popularity and boosted Muddy’s career. That was the first album of Muddy’s I ever heard and man… that voice gave me chills. He’s probably my favorite blues singer. The deep resonance of that voice rumbling around that broad chest… Simply amazing. Muddy’s career continued in a series of ebbs and flows well into the 70s. It was in the latter half of the 70s that a huge fan and follower of Muddy’s, blues-rock guitarist Johnny Winters, approached Muddy to produce an album for him…Muddy’s career had ebbed a bit at that point… he’d just signed a new contract with Blue Sky Records… I don’t think anybody saw anything coming as forceful and joyful as Hard Again. 

BourbonAndVinyl has always attempted to shed light on the latter careers of great artists like Bob Dylan or David Bowie. New music by older artists has always been my focus. When Johnny Winters entered the picture for Muddy Waters, and produced three studio albums (and one live album, but I’m only focusing on the studio stuff here), Muddy entered a golden, twilight period in his career. It was certainly one of my favorite periods in Muddy’s career. I could write and write and write about Muddy’s whole, long and storied history, but in the B&V tradition, I’m just focusing today on the Blue Sky Records, Johnny Winters period. If you’re a fan of anybody from Hendrix, who just released a cover of “Mannish Boy” (Jimi Hendrix: “Mannish Boy,” From The Upcoming, ‘Both Sides of the Sky’) to Greta Van Fleet, the music of Muddy Waters is the root of that music. I urge everyone to seek out the three Johnny Winters’ produced albums of Muddy’s post haste…

Hard Again, 1977

The first thing you hear belting out of the speakers on this record is Muddy’s voice as he begins “Mannish Boy.” “Oooooh, yeah, everything, everything gonna be alright this morning…” It’s one of the iconic moments in the blues. This music is loud, brash and so, well, joyful. You can tell everybody involved is having a great time, when you hear the band shout back at Muddy in the call and response of the song. Muddy and Johnny are on guitar along with Bob Margolin. Legends Pine Top Perkins is on piano and James Cotton on the harp (alas Little Walter had passed years prior). Willie “Big Eyes” Smith is pounding the skins and Charles Calmege is on bass. This is big, old-school Chicago blues. There is not a bad moment here. Muddy revisits some of his older, iconic tracks here, like “Mannish Boy,” and also “I Can’t Be Satisfied” (A rare acoustic blues moment here) and “I Want To Be Loved.” They also do some new stuff, the epic “Bus Driver” and “Deep Down In Florida.” This is simply one of the greatest blues albums of all time. It sounds like these guys cut the whole thing live in the studio. Heralded as a “comeback” it proved Muddy still had the power and glory.

I’m Ready, 1978

By happenstance, Muddy was reunited on this album by a member of his classic, late 40s/early 50s band, Jimmy Rogers on guitar. Hard Again gets all the attention, but I almost like I’m Ready better. The way Muddy and Jimmy weave together their guitars, much like Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood do, is mesmerizing. Margolin jumped over to bass. You throw in Johnny Winters on guitar and it’s a pretty amazing trio of axes. The title track opens things up and it’s a great version of a Muddy classic. Muddy not only wrote his own stuff, but he sang a bunch of Willie Dixon’s songs with the great “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” included here in a rousing version. “33 Years” is another stand out blues track. That good time, happy vibe continued over from the first album. These guys had found blues gold and they kept it rolling on this second album of the trio. Another must have blues album from Muddy.

King Bee, 1981

After a live album (which is definitely worth checking out), the team reconvened in the studio for the third and alas the final installment of this trio of superb records. By this time, Muddy’s health had begin to fail and he was forced more often than not to cancel his live performances. His great touring band made most their money from concerts… if a show was canceled, they didn’t get paid. This caused a schism between Muddy and his manager and the rest of the band. The big party sound of the first two albums is gone and Muddy sounds like he’s settled into a sadder, bluesier mood here. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just a farewell vibe. They only managed to bang out part of the album and had to augment it with outtakes from the Hard Again sessions. It’s too bad that money always seems to get in the way. I still think this record is essential listening. The title track is still great and I love this version of “Champagne and Reefer,” later covered by Buddy Guy and the Stones, live. Muddy’s favorite drink was champagne, why not sing about it, I mean, there are worse pastimes. On the extended version, the last track, “Clouds In My Heart” was the perfect capper on what was an amazing three record run.

For me, these three albums are a great place to start your Muddy Waters collection. For his early work, a nice place to start is the excellent Muddy Waters: The Anthology which collects over 50 of Muddy’s earliest recordings from 1945 to 1953. You can start at the beginning with Anthology or start at the end with the Johnny Winters’ produced albums, but I urge all of you to start somewhere on adding Muddy Waters to your collection.

Listen to these records and you know, deep down, “that everything, everything, everything gonna be alright this morning…”

 

 

 

 

 

The BourbonAndVinyl Top Albums of 2017: From Allman to Plant to Neil Young

IMG_1192

I staggered through the living room last night, weary from the struggle that is my job, on the way to the sink for more water, when I saw the Rock Chick had the TV on. I get my water from the kitchen like a child avoiding bedtime because it’s just better than bathroom water, but I digress. Sadly, the news was on the TV. I have been conspicuously avoiding the news this year…none of it is good. I was stunned to see that it was Pearl Harbor Day in the U.S. I know Thanksgiving is supposed to be the “official” start of the holiday season – and besides St Patrick’s Day, it’s one of my favorites (I show up, eat, drink and then fall asleep watching football) – but for some reason it didn’t register to me that the holidays were upon me. Or should I say, the dreaded holidays, but that’s another post. Pearl Harbor Day, which was also my Sainted Grandmother’s birthday, always drives home the point that it’s fucking December, baby. I can’t believe the year of 2017 has sped by with such amazing rapidity. It seems like just yesterday I was celebrating David Bowie’s birthday in January. And now I find myself almost terminally behind on Christmas shopping. It’s going to take some real Houdini level stunt for me to pull off Christmas this year… but that’s my problem.

It was again a tough year for rock and roll. Among this year’s losses were guitarist J. Geils, rock and roll pioneer and Founding Father Chuck Berry, and founding Allman Brother’s Band keyboardist/vocalist Gregg Allman. Amongst the toughest of this year’s losses was the tragic suicide of Chris Cornell, the extraordinary lead singer of Soundgarden and Audioslave. That one is going to leave a mark. Such a gifted singer and wonderful human being. The one that really stunned me and left me in a funk that hangs over me even today was the loss of Rock Legend Tom Petty. Every time I see or hear someone do a Petty cover in tribute, the Rock Chick catches me tearing up. I was lucky enough to see Cornell and Soundgarden mere days before his loss and Petty on his farewell tour a month or so prior to his loss. Not a farewell I wanted but at least I got to see these old “friends” of mine once more… The lesson was not lost on me this year, buy the ticket – see the show. Live in the moment people, and cherish each one. More recently we even lost AC/DC rhythm guitarist/songwriter Malcolm Young… and while he’d been suffering from dementia for some time, the loss was not any less painful. I know there were many more we lost, alas, too many to list here. I wonder which acts will rise to fill the Rock void…

But amongst all that tragedy there was hope and there was light and most importantly there was some great music. Tis the Season for every publication from Rolling Stone to my mother’s neighborhood news letter to come out with their “best of” lists, ranking all the past year’s music. We’re no different down here at B&V, we just do it with a glass of strong drink in our hands. As you know, we focus on rock and roll here, so if you’re looking for Taylor Swift’s name here, you best move on. As I compiled the “best of” list, a couple of things jumped out at me. First and foremost, several of these acts had just put out albums last year. I like this trend, like it was in the 70s, of acts putting out records every year. Hell, Van Morrison put out 2 albums this year, within 2 months of each other. Very 70’s if not 60s of him, indeed. And while this is on the surface, a list of “best of” LPs, I’m including a couple of EPs and even a single. This is music you’re not going to find on the radio, but like last year, I’ll tell ya, however you get your music now – Spotify, CD, Satellite Radio, hopefully vinyl – you should seek this music out. I am not doing a stack ranking here. This is just good music… I’m just not into that competition thing this year… I’ve ranked these albums in a haphazard, alphabetical manner. Find this music, pour something strong if you’re so inclined and enjoy!

The BourbonAndVinyl Best Albums of 2017

  1. Gregg Allman, Southern Blood – A farewell note in the same vein of Bowie’s Blackstar or Warren Zevon’s The Wind. I especially liked the single, “My Only True Friend.” This was a gripping listen.
  2. David Bowie, No Plan (EP) – This isn’t an album, but this EP packaged the last three songs from Bowie’s Blackstar sessions (along with the previously released song “Lazarus”) that had only been previously available on the cast recording from “Lazarus,” the play he’d been working on. It was a nice Bowie Birthday surprise and I’m hoping there’s another waiting for us this coming January.
  3. Lindsey Buckingham & Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham & Christine McVie – Tired of waiting for Stevie Nicks to record some tunes to complete an intended Fleetwood Mac project (Mick Fleetwood plays drums, McVie bass here), Buckingham and McVie put out the music they’d recorded under the duo’s title. They don’t have the baggage Lindsey and Stevie have and it turns out they’re a great pair.
  4. Cheap Trick, We’re All Alright – A gleeful rocker from Cheap Trick was a wonderful surprise, considering they’d just put out a strong album in 2016. This band is on a roll and I’ve really enjoyed this late career resurgence.
  5. David Crosby, Sky Trails – Following 2016’s homage to If I Could Only Remember My Name (the roughhewn Lighthouse), Crosby returned with this beautifully sung album. There’s a Joni Mitchell cover and a Steely Dan influenced tune. An overlooked gem of a record.
  6. Depeche Mode, Spirit – This one might be my pick for “album of the year.” From the political, “Where’s the Revolution,” and “Going Backward,” to the personal, “You Move,” Depeche deliver a slinky, sexy, dark state of the union address.
  7. Liam Gallagher, As You Were – I find Liam as unpleasant as the next guy, but he’s delivered the best post-Oasis album of anybody from that band with As You Were. This was the Rock Chick’s favorite of the year, although she’s a bigger Oasis fan than I ever was.
  8. Greta Van Fleet, From The Fires – Billed as a “double-EP,” this album might be criticized for being somewhat derivative but I love where these kids are coming from. Anybody influenced by Zeppelin in these days of hip hop and electronic pop is ok with me. They even cover Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
  9. Mick Jagger, Get A Grip/England Lost (Single) – Yes, this was merely a two-sided single but it’s a great political broadside to his home country. Oh, and the songs kick ass.
  10. Little Steven, Soulfire – A big, bombastic, 70s, arena-rock, absolute blast of a listen. I was so happy to see Little Steven restart his solo career. It’s nice to see him step out of the shadow of his famous best friend… “Down and Out In New York City” is my favorite track here… although it’s hard to pick just one.
  11. Van Morrison, Roll With The Punches – The first of two LPs Van put out this year, merely twelve months after the very strong Keep Me Singing. While mostly blues and R&B covers, this is a laid blues party with Van singing his ass off like he wrote these tunes. He’s got a lot of friends here, but his most inspired choice was inviting Jeff Beck to play guitar.
  12. Randy Newman, Dark Matter – Newman’s first new album in almost a decade proves he’s still got the wit and sense of humor to take on any topic from politics to the personal. “She Chose Me” is one of his most beautiful ballads. He’s like Mark Twain with a piano.
  13. Robert Plant, Carry Fire – Like it’s primal title suggest, Carry Fire finds Plant in rootsy, exploratory mode, where he combines rock, folk, Welsh folk, and African music into a sound gumbo that is a delight to experience. His singing is right out front and I love where his voice is at this point in his career. A truly stunning album and like Depeche Mode’s LP, possibly my candidate for album of the year.
  14. Queens of the Stone Age, Villains – Josh Homme and company’s hard rock, swinging dance party. “The Way You Used To Do” is my favorite song of the year. A great, hard rock record from start to finish.
  15. The Rolling Stones, On Air – A BBC Recording (Deluxe) – The Stones from way back, from 1963 to 1965. Hailed for returning to their roots on Blue And Lonesome, this compilation of BBC live recordings are the Stones’ roots unfolding before your very ears… back when Brian Jones was as important as Mick or Keith. These recordings crackle with a youthful energy that is a wonder to behold.
  16. Bob Seger, I Knew You When (Deluxe) – This was a near miss of a classic record from Seger, but there are enough great moments here to recommend it. It’s a blast to hear Seger cover, of all people, Lou Reed on “Busload of Faith.” This is Seger’s best album since The Distance. 
  17. Bruce Springsteen, Live Archival Recordings – Springsteen has been quietly releasing a new live, archival recording every first Friday, each month. It’s the only reason that I’ve found to celebrate the turn of a calendar month. From early releases of the rarely heard 1977 tour, to another great show in Houston on the 1978 tour these live recordings are something special. The 1996 release from The Ghost of Tom Joad solo tour was another recent release. If you’re not checking these live albums out, you’re missing out.
  18. U2, Songs of Experience – The long awaited sequel to Songs of Innocence. Bono’s recent brush with death inform these lyrics, and they’re some of his best. I can’t stop listening to this album, their best since How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. 
  19. Roger Waters, Is This The Life We Really Want – It took 25 years between solo albums, but Waters has delivered his best album since The Wall. This magnum opus is truly his solo masterpiece. I only regret I didn’t get to see it live, which a friend of mine told me was like going “to church.”
  20. Neil Young, Hitchhiker – Neil went back to the archives to release this stunning acoustic album, recorded in one night back in August of 1976… the full moon really worked some magic. While many of these songs came out on later albums and in different versions, hearing them all in this original setting is the way God and Neil intended them to be heard. Neil’s just launched his own streaming, archival website which will likely provide me with hours of rock n roll spelunking joy…

 

There you have it folks, 2017 in a classic rock nutshell. Happy Holidays.

Playlist: The B&V Best Tom Petty Album/Deep Tracks

image1 2

*Picture taken 6/2/2107, Kansas City’s Sprint Center

If you’re like me this has been an awful week. The loss of Tom Petty has left an enormous void in the Rock N Roll Firmament. The man was a National Treasure. More than that, his songs made him feel like a friend. I can’t count the number of people who have reached out to me over the course of the week who are as upset as I am about his passing. From people I knew in high school to college roommates to people I work with, people keep texting or calling. Arkansas Joel reached out, he knows what a huge Petty fan I am. One of my friends texted me and said, “Petty, what a badass!” Indeed, my friend, indeed. Needless to say, I remain distraught over this untimely loss. It’ll take a long time to shake this one off. I know a lot of you are feeling the same way I am, and if this blog can bring you any solace, that you’re not alone, my job is successful… The tributes by famous rock stars from Bruce Springsteen to (believe it or not) Coldplay with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck have been amazing. (Yes, I still hate Coldplay, just a little less right this moment).

In the old days, during times like these, I’d lock myself in my apartment with a fifth of rye and Petty’s entire catalog of music. Since I’m married now, I can’t lock myself away, but I can sequester myself in a room with a liter of rye (nice to see that booze has gone metric) and Petty’s entire catalog. It took me three days to get through all of the Tom Petty I own, only taking breaks to sleep, go to the restroom and get more ice for the rye… I can only marvel at the man’s songwriting prowess and the power of the Heartbreakers as a band. They could rock with the hardest bands around and bring it down to play the most intricate, beautiful ballads. I feel like they were always under-rated. Mike Campbell (guitar), Ben Tench (keyboards) and yes, Stan Lynch (erstwhile, estranged drummer) deserve special notice for their individual talents and contributions. I can’t imagine what those guys and Petty’s family are going through right now. As bad as I feel, I know those individuals are suffering infinitely more.

When I first heard the news about Petty, I was out at Arrowhead Stadium. People were playing his music and you could hear different groups playing different songs. I heard “Free Fallin'” a couple of times. “Here Comes My Girl” and “Don’t Do My Like That” came floating over the wind from different directions in the parking lot. “Running Down A Dream” was played by the heavy metal enthusiasts in the pick-up truck next to me… Petty’s music was truly universal. While I love all of those tunes, having spent three days listening to Petty’s whole catalog, I have to say, there was SO MUCH more music there.

Every single one of Petty’s albums has those signature singles (and from the old days signature videos). But to go along with those, there were always album cuts that never received any airplay on radio, which for any other band would have been hits. Side 2, song 9 for Petty would have been the lead off track for most bands. After three days of intense listening, I put together the following playlist of those album tracks or perhaps more appropriately “deep tracks.” I went through each album (and tried to grab at least a song from each), each box set and tried to cull through some of the lesser known, or less famous tracks. When I was done, I had a list of 64 songs. I did a lot of soul searching as I winnowed this list down to twenty-seven cuts. It truly was not easy but I think this is a good representation of some of the great music that Petty and the Heartbreakers did that didn’t get the exposure of his hits – from rockers to ballads. If you’re a “greatest hits” type fan, this collection might help you delve further into Petty’s catalog. If you’re a big fan, you’ll likely recognize most of these tunes and hopefully, in this dark time, you will smile like I did when I heard them (or occasionally tear up). If the Rock Chick will help me figure out how, I’ll be putting this play list out on Spotify under the creative title, “BourbonAndVinyl Petty Deep Tracks”

I’ve seen lists like this from “major publications” and oft times they list tracks that aren’t readily available like say, bootlegs. Rolling Stone magazine did a list of 100 Springsteen songs and one was a song he’d performed once and had never committed to tape. I consider that kind of a dick move and have tried to avoid that if I can… And while there are an almost infinite number of songs I could have put on this list…I chose these because they jumped out at me. Think of this as a primer instead of the definitive list.

  1. “Breakdown (Live In Capitol Studios),” DJ Promo Only – So after decrying Rolling Stone for using bootlegs and unobtainable tracks on their lists as a dick move, I start off with an unobtainable track… I know, dick move. “Heal thyself physician…” This is the definitive version of this song and I pray some day it’ll be released. It’s the only version of “Breakdown” that my local radio station, KY/102 used to play. A friend slipped me a copy recently and it’s amazing… the band is loose and the drums start off almost sloppy, then Campbell’s guitar stabs it’s way into the mix. Petty’s vocal is impassioned but his rant at the end is funny.
  2. “Hometown Blues,” Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers – Petty’s early work was always compared to the Byrds, but the drums on this upbeat rocker sound almost Bo Diddley-like.
  3. “Restless,” You’re Gonna Get It! – Petty’s second album gets lumped into he “sophomore slump” category but that’s only because it’s sandwiched between his seminal first record and his first masterpiece, Damn The Torpedoes. This is a great track from an underrated album.
  4. “Casa Dega,” Damn The Torpedoes – Deluxe Edition – “Casa Dega” was actually originally released on the exceptional box set, Playback, but it sprang from the sessions for Damn the… One of many great “baby what’s up” songs.
  5. “Louisiana Rain,” Damn The Torpedoes – This was always one of my favorites from side 2 of Torpedoes. There’s a country version on Playback.
  6. “Nowhere,” Damn The Torpedoes – Deluxe Edition – It’s a testament to how strong the material on Torpedoes was that they left this rocking track off. I love the riff.
  7. “Nightwatchman,” Hard Promises – This song is such a great demonstration of Petty’s signature sense of humor. It’s a great track and actually got a little radio play. Funky and rocking.
  8. “Straight Into Darkness,” Long After Dark – This album was sort of the soundtrack of my first breakup… While “You Got Lucky” and “Change of Heart” got the radio play, this track captures the emotion of a breakup better than anything else on the record.
  9. “Dogs On The Run,” Southern Accents – Great, soaring rock from the Heartbreakers…”Honey, ain’t it funny how a crowd gathers around anyone living life with out a net.” I can actually testify to the truth of this… oh, my misspent youth…
  10. “Spike,” Southern Accents – My buddy Drew told me that for whatever reason, Wichita radio actually played this song a lot. I heard an interview with Petty on the radio once and he said, “In Wichita we play “Spike” and they go nuts…” This is Petty’s funniest, funkiest songs. There’s a great live version on the Live Anthology as well.
  11. “Runaway Trains,” Let Me Up, I’ve Had Enough – Another song which may be considered a breakup song… I see a theme here… Actually I see it more as a song about moving on from a situation and the regrets that brings. Beautiful, atmospheric Petty.
  12. “Out In The Cold,” Into The Great White Open – A good, old-fashioned, Heartbreakers, ass-kicking rocker. It’s like they looked at each other at the beginning of this track and said, “Meet me at the finish line…” Full-tilt rock.
  13. “Time To Move On,” Wildflowers – There were many times in my younger days where I needed to tell my resilience and stubbornness, boys pack your bags, “it’s time to move on…” I wish I’d learned this lesson earlier. The music sounds almost like an old Johnny Cash train song.
  14. “Cabin Down Below,” Wildflowers – While “You Wreck Me” was one of the Heartbreakers greatest rock songs, it sort of overshadowed other great rock tracks like “Honey Bee” and this great barn-burner of a tune.
  15. “Girl On LSD,” bootleg, probable inclusion on the extended version of Wildflowers, due any time now…- I know, another dick move. I hope this song comes out soon with the rest of the material left over for Wildflowers. It’s actually a love song disguised as a drug song.
  16. “Waiting For Tonight,” Playback: Nobody’s Children – This great song was actually released as a single to herald the arrival of Playback, but disappeared pretty quickly. I thought it was an underrated gem of a tune that deserved another listen.
  17. “Travelin’,” Playback: Nobody’s Children – This rocker is a great traveling tune. If, and I know it’s inevitable, I do another road-song playlist, this song will be on it. I would have loved to hear this live…Alas.
  18. “Swingin’,” Echo – Most Petty fans will know this song. My friend Stormin actually saw him sing this one live on the final tour, in Denver. “Like Sonny Liston…”
  19. “Have Love Will Travel,” The Last DJ – Last DJ is always derided as Petty’s “angry” album. There are some great tracks on this record, and this is one of them. I love when he sings, “how about a cheer for all those bad girls.” I saw this song performed live and the every woman in the crowd screamed!
  20. “I’m Walkin’,” Goin’ Home: A Tribute To Fats Domino – Petty, bringing his Florida swampy sound to a Fats Domino swampy Louisiana song. What’s not to love here. This was a great tribute album and one of the first things I reviewed on B&V… I have a real soft spot for this tune.
  21. “Down South,” Highway Companion – I loved this album but it got almost no airplay. This is a great travelogue of a song… “Gonna head back down south, gonna see my daddy’s mistress.” Petty was such a brilliant lyricist.
  22. “Big Weekend,” Highway Companion – Great party song, great road song… “If you don’t run you rust…” This could be the B&V theme song.
  23. Mudcrutch, “Topanga Cowgirl,” Mudcrutch – Petty reunited with his original outfit, Mudcrutch with Campbell and Tench, who eventually morphed into the Heartbreakers and put out this great album. This is my favorite song on the album because I think it captures the loose, country-rock spirit of the entire album.
  24. “It’s Good To Be King (Live),” Live Anthology – “It’s Good to Be King” is a great song but anybody who ever saw Petty in concert knows that the song exploded when they played it live. Petty and Campbell would jam on their guitars on this song for over 12 minutes. It’s a great live cut and the definitive version of this song. Kudos to Campbell on this one.
  25. “High In The Morning,” Mojo – Great, funky little bluesy number from a great funky, little blues album. “He’ll be high in the morning and by evening, he’ll be gone.”
  26. “U Get Me High,” Hypnotic Eye – Petty’s last album was a great one. This song is a favorite of the Rock Chick and mine… It’s an unconventional love song.
  27. Mudcrutch, “Hungry No More,” 2 – I was lucky to see this tour, again with my thanks to my old pal Stormin. I really like this record, but I love this song. It’s a soaring, beautiful ballad. The resolve and strength in Petty’s voice on this one gives me hope.

I’m sure there’s tracks that I missed on this, that many of you like. If you have any suggestions for additions, please suggest them in the comments section. It’s a tough time in rock and roll when our heroes are passing unexpectedly. Take care of yourself out there and we’ll get through this together.

 

 

Robert Plant: “The May Queen,” The New Song From The Upcoming ‘Carry Fire’

robplant-920x584

“It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen…” – “Stairway To Heaven,” Led Zeppelin

I am consistently amazed and impressed that artists can still surprise me. My corporate overlords had me traveling this week, as usual, and while suffering through the interminable wait for my flight home, I started checking out what the kids call, “the social media.” There were several indications that Robert Plant was up to something. His website had gone dark. It was literally just a black page. If you remained on the website long enough, letters started to rise to the surface, like a body floating to the top of a lake. Eventually the letters spelled out the phrase, “A Way With Words.” This was merely 48 hours ago…

The music press immediately began to buzz about a possible new album from Plant. I’ve been expecting a lot of new music over the coming few months – Beck, Van Morrison, maybe the Stones, Neil Young, Queens of the Stone Age – all have albums coming. I had no idea Plant was even in the studio, he wasn’t on my radar, and my radar is usually pretty good. We haven’t heard from Robert since 2014’s excellent, but alas, largely overlooked ‘lullaby… and the Ceaseless Roar.’ I couldn’t sleep last night, insomnia is my cross to bear, and so I got up and logged on. I was bouncing around the internet and realized, yes, Robert Plant is going to release a new album in October, entitled ‘Carry Fire.’

Best of all, a new single, “The May Queen” has been released as the first track. I downloaded it immediately. His backing band, like on his last album, are the superb Sensational Shape Shifters – Liam “Skin” Tyson, Justin Adams on guitar, Juldeh Camara on “West African” instrumentation, Dave Smith on drums, Billy Fuller on bass, and John Baggot on keyboards. These guys blend folk, rock and “world” music seamlessly. I bought a live record these guys did in Buenos Aires from 2012 and I just love it. Plant has been intent in the latter stages of his career in blending all sorts of different roots music – Celtic, Americana, African and even Welsh. It would appear he thinks all of this music springs from the same source, so why not mix it all together and see where it takes him. He’s quoted as saying he wants to blend his old music with something new. He’s certainly done that here. I love his sense of exploration. A lot of folks may be pissed that he’s not getting back together with Zeppelin (give it up folks, no means no), but I love what he’s doing at this stage in his career.

The new track, “The May Queen,” is a great start. I can’t find any writing credits on the web, although I searched extensively. With a name like “The May Queen” I thought it might be a traditional folk tune or a cover, but I believe Plant wrote this. The lyrics certainly seem Plant-ish and of course, The May Queen shows up in “Stairway To Heaven” so we have to assume this is Plant’s writing. The song is driven by a repeating acoustic guitar riff. There is some great African or “world” percussive elements. As has been case with most of his latter music, the vocals are front and center. Plant’s voice ages like fine wine, only getting better as time passes. There is a nice violin that accents the song as well. It feels folky and world beat all at the same time. The first line “Lay down in sweet surrender, your love’s so warm and tender,” embraces you like an affectionate hug from an old friend… I just love where his voice is right now.

This is a superb opening track, reminiscent of the first track from ‘lullaby,’ “Rainbow,” which was a track that is still in high rotation here at the house 3 years after it’s release. I highly recommend you check out this new Plant track. All these years later, he’s still exploring, digging through the past to find something new. It’s been a lot of fun to listen to. And, best of all, he’s released it just in time for his birthday, this Sunday August 20th. I look forward to spinning the new record when it arrives in October…

Happy Birthday Robert! Cheers!

LP Review: Randy Newman’s ‘Dark Matter’

MI0004261514

We here at BourbonAndVinyl tend to lean mostly toward harder, classic rock, but as many of you have seen, our musical spelunking can lead us in many different directions. I know full well that I may lose some folks on this post… I don’t know if there’s a more divisive artist than Randy Newman. My college roomie, Drew, is the only person other than me who I know owns any of Newman’s albums.

An old friend of mine from high school and I reconnected recently. We were trading emails when he asked the eternal rock n roll question… “what is rock, and how do you define it?” Many rock bands jump genres or do ballads. Are those still rock? It’s a thorny question, that I believe was first debated by Socrates and Plato… I don’t have any real answer, but to me, it’s about the integrity with which the artist approaches his music. In my view, Randy Newman is just as much rock as say, the Eagles or Neil Young.

Of course, a sense of humor is never something that’s valued by rock fans. We all loved David Lee Roth’s humor but it was always leveled out by Eddie Van Halen’s glowering seriousness. Once Roth split from Van Halen the class clown act lost it’s charm pretty quickly. It turns out people were more into the “Mean Streets” side of the equation vs “Big Bad Bill Is Sweet William Now.” Frank Zappa and Warren Zevon often inserted a dark sense of humor into their songs but neither had the commercial reach of artists similar but less talented. Randy Newman has always had the darkest, most biting sense of humor of anybody in music. I would almost venture to say he’s the greatest American satirist since Mark Twain. His biggest song, “Short People,” was one of the funniest songs and most misinterpreted songs of all time. It was supposed to be an anti-bigotry song but the joke was lost on a lot of the under six-foot tall crowd. To judge Newman on that one song is like judging Zevon solely on “Werewolves Of London,” which is way too narrow a sample size. Personally, I always preferred Zevon’s “Carmelita,” but I’m getting off track here…

I always loved Newman’s classic 70’s albums. ’12 Songs,’ ‘Sail Away’ and ‘Rednecks’ are simply put, masterpieces. I love his Fats Domino-style piano and his slurred lyrical delivery. It’s obvious he spent a lot of his childhood in New Orleans and that comes out in his piano sound. My favorite of his early albums, or the pick of the litter for me, was always ‘Sail Away.’ Newman had a knack for biting social criticism but at the same time, he wrote gently moving, personal songs. Most of his records seem divided by the two sides, sarcasm and sentiment. It’s always the funny guys who have the biggest hearts, we’re all just hiding behind our wit.

I liked ’99’s ‘Bad Love,’ but I would probably describe it as a good Randy Newman album, not a great one. When he finally took a break from his day job scoring movies for Pixar and returned in 2008 with ‘Harps and Angels’ I was delighted. That album is a great Randy Newman album. The title track is hysterical. “A Few Words In Defense of Our Country” is the perfect epitaph for the W years. While, on the same album, “Losing You” is just a beautiful Randy Newman ballad.

Now, Newman has returned nine years later with ‘Dark Matter.’ At this rate, the next Randy Newman album will be out in 2026. I hope he’s doing push-ups and taking his vitamins. Since he only puts out albums once a decade, I felt like it was important to shine a light on this release. I fully realize that any listener’s interest in Newman, much like the recent work by Roger Waters, will largely depend on your world view. Newman is an admitted atheist, and that has always informed his work including ‘Dark Matter.’

The first third of this record are grand, epic, political songs. They’re almost like musical theater. You can tell Randy scores movies as each of these songs are heavily orchestrated. The opening track, “The Great Debate” is basically the Scopes Trial set to music. Randy plays the narrator on what sounds like a game show, where a group of scientists have gathered to debate a group of religious enthusiasts. Whenever the scientists give an answer, the music turns sour and the answers come across as right but uninspiring. When, as the narrator, Randy turns to the religious group, they merely sing, in ecstatic voices, “I’ll take Jesus, I’ll take Jesus, I’ll take Jesus every time.” Based on music alone, the religious side wins, going away. While science is portrayed as empirically correct, it’s passionless and while religion is, sometimes, shall we say, misguided, at least they’ve got the passion. No wonder these two sides can’t get along.

“Brothers,” the second song on the album is Randy imaging JFK and RFK standing in the Oval Office, discussing of all things, the Redskins… The brothers conversation turns to the Bay of Pigs invasion. At first resistant to the idea of invading Cuba, JFK realizes he wants to back the plan because he’s in love with a lounge singer in Havana… It ends with JFK and RFK singing a Latin-flavored ode to the aforementioned lounge singer. Odd premise, but frankly, not all that unbelievable. The triptych that begins the album ends with a funny rave up of a song for the leader of Russia, “Putin.” It came out a few months ago as a single and it’s trademark Randy Newman smart ass.

On the sentimental side, there are several songs sprinkled on this album that I really like. “She Chose Me” is a song that I wish I’d written for my wife, “the most beautiful girl in the world, and she chose me…” And yes, “every night I thank the lucky stars above me that someone as beautiful as she could love me…” I want that song played at my fucking funeral. “Lost Without You” is another heart rending song, told from the perspective of a man whose wife is dying. He gathers their children, “just the blood this time.” It’s apparent the children aren’t crazy about dad. The dying mother enjoins the children to take care of their father after she’s gone. Set to mournful piano and strings, it’s a moving piece of music. “Wandering Boy” is another song about a son estranged from a father. I begin to wonder how things are at home for Randy…

There’s some other fun stuff along the way here too. He sings about one of the blues’ biggest mysteries for me in the great song, “Sonny Boy.” There was an original Sonny Boy Williamson who sang “Good Morning Little School Girl.” I’ve always been confused because I’ve seen songs listed as being by Sonny Boy Williamson 2. I always thought it was a junior. Apparently there was another harmonica playing blues singer named Rice Miller who just decided to start telling people he was Sonny Boy. To make it worse, the real Sonny Boy was accidentally shot and killed at a young age, outside the scene of a robbery while on his way home from a gig. Randy’s song is basically Sonny Boy looking down from Heaven wondering how the hell this other guy got to be called Sonny Boy Williamson.

“On The Beach” tells the story of a guy who dropped out of high school and became a beach bum. Well, not a bum, but it “twas in reach.” It’s got a great rollicking piano. Not enough can be said for the great piano work through out this album. Finally, the only song that didn’t feel like it fit on this album was “It’s a Jungle Out There.” I think it was something Randy did for a TV show or a movie. It feels a bit grafted on here, but it’s not a bad tune.

I really like this album, and I would recommend it to anybody who likes Randy Newman. If I was to compare it to his recent works, it’s probably closer to ‘Bad Love,’ which is a good Randy Newman album, but not a classic like ‘Harps And Angels.’ As always with Randy, you’ll want to bring a sense of humor with you. At the very least I’d highly recommend checking out “She Chose Me.” I slipped that one on for the wife, and let’s just say, I avoided having to sweep out the garage this weekend…